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Excerpts from “Missing”

Prologue

When the dog died, my mom showed no reaction that I can remember. I don’t remember her speaking of it at all until days later. My sister and I commiserated with each other; I know Marge felt as bad as I did—probably worse, because she was older and it was sort of “her” dog and she felt more responsible for having let him run loose. We cried and cried and talked it over in the days that followed.

It happened at night. Snap had gone missing, and Marge was outside calling him, but he didn’t come home. She told me later that she thought she actually knew when it happened. She imagined that her calling his name had lured him, running home, into the path of a truck.

Marge must have found him the next morning, lying by the side of the road across from our house. I am ashamed to recall that his body lay there for days. My dad, a paraplegic, couldn’t dig a grave from his wheelchair. Marge and I were just children—about twelve and eight years old—and didn’t know what to do. That my mother might take some action never entered my head. Eventually, our neighbor Mr. Dill dug a hole in his yard and buried our dog. No one—not my father, my sister or me, not my mother—said anything about what needed to be done about our dog lying by the side of the road. We were in the habit of not saying anything about painful subjects.

This loss was a very ordinary tragedy. What child doesn’t have to deal with the death of a pet? But why, over forty years later, is it such a dark and painful memory?

A few days after Snap died, my mother hovered around the dinner table, carrying food, making no eye contact with my sister or me, and said this to my father: “It happened because they always let the dog run loose. We told them not to let it run loose.”

My father, who rarely showed impatience with my mother, shushed her and said, “I thought we agreed not to say anything like that.”

That was the only conversation, the only words spoken by my mother, about Snap’s dying.

Thirty years later, I’m standing in my own backyard with my kids on a sunny afternoon. Our goldfish has died, and we have put him in a box and dug a hole and prepared a little service. My daughter Margaret, about four years old, clings to my leg sobbing. I stroke her hair and lean down to hug her now and then. She cries and cries. I whisper to her, “I’m sorry you feel so bad. It’s okay, Margaret.” Then, after our makeshift funeral, she feels much better. I’m amazed how quickly she recovers.

Ah—I think to myself—this might have helped. A hug. A comforting word. This is what was missing.


Home

My mother had a whole stable of door-to-door salespeople. The Cook Coffee man sold her everything from toilet paper to dish cloths to knickknacks. I guess he sold coffee, too. The Fuller Brush man visited occasionally, and we had a Nickles bakery guy and a milkman nicknamed Brownie. A variety of Avon ladies over the years would stop by periodically and show their wares. My mother would buy cosmetics and perfumes for herself, which she rarely used, and for us daughters as well. My favorite scent was “Sweet Honesty” and my sister Marge’s was “Occur,” while Betsey favored “Topaz.”

These scents came in decorative bottles, and today, of course, many of them have become valuable. On a website for Avon collectibles, I find the term “fan rockers.” So those bottles have a name. They are dated around 1962, which is just about right. Shaped like upside-down fans, they can literally rock from side to side on their curved bottoms, about three inches across. The sides have ridges, and narrow up to a point, topped by a gold plastic cap, with a little sash tied around it. The bottles came in small, neat boxes, and the color of the box indicated which scent it was.

When I was about eleven, I gave one of these bottles of Avon perfume to my mom. It was probably “To a Wild Rose,” which seemed old-fashioned and appropriate for a mother. I can’t remember now how I acquired it. I suppose it’s possible I secretly bought it myself from the Avon lady. More likely, I selected it from one of my mother’s three large dresser drawers filled with gifts—things she had received and never used, as well as items she had purchased and hadn’t given to anyone. And never would. When she died, we sorted through those drawers and gave things away. I remember beautiful lacy slips and colorful nightgowns and robes. My mom’s everyday slips were droopy and old, the straps fastened with safety pins. The pale pink flannel nightgowns she always wore had been washed so many times they were sheer (in fact, I’m just guessing they were flannel originally), hanging down in tatters, and she never wore a robe that I can remember. All those bright, clean, new items in her drawers went to Goodwill after she died.

Most likely, I picked out that perfume myself from her stash, because it made sense to my eleven-year-old mind to “shop” from those drawers. I wrapped it in some light blue paper and gave it to her for her birthday. Smiling slightly, she set it aside and opened other packages. When she came to the end, the blue box was still there.

“Why don’t you open it?” I asked.

“I know what it is,” she answered evenly. “I don’t need to open it.”

That made sense to me at the time. When it’s your mother speaking to you, you make it make sense. It was like Santa Claus, who, we were told early on, did not exist. That’s how we dealt with such things. These topics bore no relation to feelings, or sentiment, or “fun.” They were in the area of fact. In fact, my mom did know what was in that box, because the size and shape were so familiar. What was the point of opening it?

Eventually the little blue-wrapped box made its way to her dusty dressing table, filled with other perfumes, lipsticks, and powders, rarely used. I can picture it sitting on her dresser for years and years. It sat there, in fact, for about thirty years. It was there when we were selling the house and cleaned out her room. As a teenager, I would occasionally ask her, partly joking, when she was planning to open it. She would repeat, impassively, that there was no need because she knew what was inside. Finally, I just stopped asking.

I wasn’t angry or disappointed. I was merely bewildered. It was a gift from her daughter that she never bothered to open. I never verbalized how odd this was—I never had to. I have just always carried with me the vivid image of that box on the dresser.

Now, as an adult, I try to explain.

I was driving recently to a restaurant with a friend of mine. She was putting on some Avon lipstick and told me, sheepishly, that she had an Avon lady, and we laughed about how retro that was. We got talking about Avon products, and I mentioned that old Avon bottles were collectible.

She knows a little about my mother, and so I recalled for the first time in many years that unopened gift, expecting the story would automatically convey my mother’s hoarding, passivity, and insensitivity. That gift, thirty years: a blatant symbol of strangeness. But my friend said, Oh, Kathy, she loved you so much. She wanted to keep it.

No, I said, it wasn’t that.

But, she insisted, you were her favorite, weren’t you? She must have cherished that present.

No. I could only say, No. It wasn’t that. Suddenly I felt very impatient with my friend and very angry with my mother.

It’s always like this. Where to begin? That box is not evidence that my mother loved me. No indication of “cherishing” at all, but rather of eccentricity and disconnection. It seems now a symptom of illness.

drawing by Chris Wellman